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Statewide Coordinated Action to End Solitary Confinement, Oakland
Two years ago today, the largest prisoner hunger strike in California’s history was started by prisoners in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay State Prison. Within the first month of the strike, over 30,000 in California’s prisons had joined, raising the call for the five core demands in unified struggle. The strikers received overwhelming support, with prisoners from across the U.S., in Guantanamo Bay, and as far as Palestine sending statements of solidarity. Outside prison walls, families, loved ones, and organizers elevated the imprisoned voices to an international scale, sparking solidarity actions all over the world, and even prompting the U.N. to call on California to end the use of solitary.
However, the struggle continues. The prison regime has refused to meet the strikers’ demands in any meaningful way, opting to demonize and repress prisoners.
A class action lawsuit brought on behalf of Pelican Bay solitary prisoners in 2012 is ongoing despite numerous attempts by the state to weaken and halt it. Importantly, grassroots organizing has been reinvigorated, with the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition organizing statewide coordinated actions on the 23rd of each month since March of this year to continue raising awareness and building the movement to end solitary, with the actions growing larger across the state.
In the words of Todd Ashker, one of the hunger strike leaders, “I personally believe the prisoncrats’ efforts to turn the global support we have gained for our cause against us will fail […] CDCr rhetoric indicates desperation – a very concerning desperation in the sense that it is demonstrative of CDCr’s top administrators’ intent to continue their culture of dehumanization, torture and other types of abusive policies and practices […] Our key demands remain unresolved. The primary goal is abolishing indefinite SHU and Ad Seg confinement and related torturous conditions.”
Especially in the wake of Riker’s Island scandal and Kalief Browder’s death, the nation is aware of widespread torture — by means of solitary confinement — in U.S. prisons. But, a few years ago the issue was only just beginning to register on the national conscience. It cannot be overstated how vital California prisoners’ efforts (with support from families and allies outside) led the march against this abusive and invisible practice.
Two long and short years … depending on which side of the box you are.
Also, not to be missed is this extended, #longread analysis of the situation two years on by the indubitable Vikki Law at Truthout, Two Years After Pelican Bay Hunger Strike, What’s Changed for People Inside the Prison?
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) continues to claim that “there is no ‘solitary confinement’ in California’s prisons and the SHU is not ‘solitary confinement,'” but people inside the Pelican Bay State Prison’s security housing unit say they remain locked in for at least 23 hours per day. Meanwhile, in June 2015, the CDCR released proposed new regulations around its use of the security housing unit and administrative segregation – regulations that may, in part, curb participation in future strikes and other prison protests. […] The regulations are currently going through the required public comment period in which any member of the public, incarcerated or otherwise, can submit written comments. A public hearing is scheduled for August 7, 2015.
Author Todd Ashker, who was locked in the security housing unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison, disagrees with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s assertion that its prisons do not have solitary confinement.
In a 13-page typed statement, Ashker describes how, along with over 1,000 other people, he is locked for 25 years of his life into 11-by-seven-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. The security housing unit cells have no windows and their doors face a wall so that those inside cannot see each other through the door slot. Any time they are taken out of their cells – for a shower, a visit or an hour of recreation in an exercise cage – they are handcuffed and ankle chained.
“What would it be like to have one’s bodily contact with others reduced to the fastening and unfastening of restraints, punctuated with the most intimate probing of the surface and depths of one’s body?” Ashker writes in his statement.
Solitary still exists and for long as it does, and for as many years tick by, it must be opposed. By us. We.
Good news arrived today for Think Ten Media, producers of the innovative web series The wHole: funding has been secured to continue production. Producer Jennifer Fischer tweeted, “Big News! The wHOLE got the greenlight. Episode 2 is a go.”
— Jennifer Fischer (@IndieJenFischer) May 5, 2015
$$$ ONWARD $$$
But the fundraising and the efforts are not over. If you’ve got any money to throw in the pot. I know Fischer and writer & director Ramon Hamilton would love to push toward the 100% funding. (At the time of writing, they are at 80%). You can view the pilot episode here, and if you like what you see, then donate.
If you need a little more convincing about why to support a web series about this issue then read this conversation about “The Truth Behind Solitary” — hosted by ACLU — between Amy Fettig, senior counsel at the National Prison Project at the ACLU; Jeff Deskovic, advocate and exoneree who was released after 16 years in prison; and Hamilton.
The wHole was filmed at the empty and never-used Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon. When they were working on the pilot last year, I argued that it was the only good thing to come out of the vacant jail.
Carnell Hunnicutt, Sr. Northern Correctional Institution, Somers, CT. Courtesy Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility. Via Solitary Watch.
Today, December 10th, is Human Rights Day. Organised by the United Nations, the day of action is based around the central tenet that “Each one of us, everywhere, at all times is entitled to the full range of human rights. Human rights belong equally to each of us and bind us together as a global community with the same ideals and values.”
The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains several articles which would apply broadly to prisoners and former prisoners in the U.S., but unfortunately remain unrecognized by the U.S. government.”
Specifically, we should be looking at the enforcement of policy and law as they would uphold Articles 4, 8, 9 and 21.
The problems are endless. Executions need to stop — the state shouldn’t be murdering citizens. Mass incarceration, generally, brings with it almost insurmountable problems (overcrowding, inadequate healthcare, predation, sexual and psychological abuse). The prison industrial complex magnifies these problems in poor communities. I’ve noticed a cycle of issues-du-jour that append to critique of American prisons. Most recently, no doubt, the issue of solitary confinement has been widely discussed. Why? Because it is abusive and counter-productive. Moves in the right direction are starting to reign in the rampant use of solitary as a disciplining technique. I wrote about what’s at stake for Daylight Digital last year:
Juan E. Méndez, United Nations special rapporteur on torture, is clear that solitary confinement is torture and permanently damages the mental health of prisoners.
“Segregation, isolation, separation, cellular, lockdown, Supermax, the hole, Secure Housing Unit…whatever the name, solitary confinement should be banned by States as a punishment or extortion technique,” said Mendez in front of the UN General Assembly in June 2011. “It is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system.”
Prisoners lose their minds quickly when deprived of human contact. Identity is socially created, and it is through relationships that individuals understand themselves.
Solitary confinement “undermines your ability to register and regulate emotion,” explained Craig Haney, psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in an interview with WIRED. “The appropriateness of what you’re thinking and feeling is difficult to index, because we’re so dependent on contact with others for that feedback. And for some people, it becomes a struggle to maintain sanity.”
Common symptoms resulting from long-term isolation include chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair. In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving and become essentially catatonic.
If a prisoner doesn’t withdraw within him or herself, he or she may resort to aggression. In his study of Pelican Bay SHU prisoners, Haney found that nearly 90 percent had difficulties with irrational anger, compared with just 3 percent of the general US population.
Physician Atul Gawande has compared the permanent psychological impairment described in Haney’s research to that incurred by traumatic brain injury.
For many, calendar days such as these serve to raise brief awareness. Often not much more. In our busy lives it can be hard to stay on top of the ebb and flow of politics, policy and information; it’s tough to hold those in power accountable, especially if day-to-day we’re just trying to get the bare minimum done.
I don’t know what I think of e-petitions as I don’t know how to gauge their efficacy, but I do know it takes seconds to sign one and you can do it after the kids are in bed and the washing up’s drying.
Thanks to Prisoner Activist for this comprehensive list of 22 active petitions against solitary confinement.
ACLU of Arizona: Arizona is Maxed Out! No New Supermax Prison Beds
American Friends Service Committee (AFSC): Stop Abuse of
Amnesty International: US super-maximum security prisons must be opened up for UN scrutiny!
Amnesty International USA: Free Albert Woodfox – End the Injustice. Remove Woodfox from Isolation
Amnesty International USA: Solitary Confinement: US Government Must End This Cruel and Inhumane Practice
Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB): Demand the State of California Stop the Torture
Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR): Honor the Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Demands
Friends Committee on Legislation of California: Stop the abuse of solitary confinement
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): End Prolonged Solitary Confinement Now
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): Take Action to End Solitary Confinement of Youth in California
National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT): People of Faith Support Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014
New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC) Says: End Solitary Confinement; No Supermax at Rikers
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Support Pelican Bay SHU Prisoners’ Five Core Demands (hunger strike)
Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity Coalition: Corcoran SHU Prisoners Start Hunger Strike for Decent Healthcare
Roots Action: End prolonged solitary confinement
Sylvia Rivera Law Project: DOCCS, Make Housing Safer for Trans People in New York State Prisons!
The Petition Site: End Child Torture: Stop Holding Our Kids in Solitary Confinement!
At first glance, the image above looks like the usual press photograph of a suspect accompanied to the stand, being escorted between holding cells and a courtroom. Alternatively, it could be a scene from inside a jail. Jumpsuit, shackles and guards are glaring visual clues and we think we know what we are seeing. But, in most cases we don’t. And in this case were aren’t. This is a photo from the set of the in-production web series wHole, for which filming began last month at the vacant Wapato Jail in Portland, Oregon.
wHole, made by Think Ten Media and directed by Ramon Hamilton (who is actually to the left in this picture) aims to raise awareness about the sensory deprivation and widespread use of solitary confinement in American today. The limited information this fictional scene provides us is akin to the limited visual information available to us generally of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. (Aside of photography, we must recognise there is currently a good swell of great advocacy journalism about solitary, not least by Solitary Watch).
Even though Wapato was designed as a medium-level-security county jail. Think Ten Media thought it a worthy location for depicting Supermax facilities. wHole might be the only good thing to come out of this waste of space and money.
In 1996, the taxpayers of Multnomah County (Portland, Oregon) approved a bond measure to build a 168,420-square-foot, 525-bed jail back, but county leaders never set aside money to open and operate it. Construction was completed ten years ago at a total cost of $58M. Wapato was a bad idea to start with, but changes in legislation and a drop in crime proved it a terrible idea. The jail never went into operation. Don’t get me wrong, it is a good thing that no-one has been locked up at Wapato, but it is a terrible thing that it was built in the first place. What could have that $58M (plus the $3M of tax payers money spent over the past decade to merely to maintain the place) achieved in terms of rehabilitation, jobs training and addiction treatment?
Last year, sensible suggestions such as repurposing the jail as a drug rehab center, a homeless shelter or a community center were invoked but didn’t develop. More recently, the county made concerted efforts to sell the jail and get it off the books. In a typical Portlandish well-meaning, transparent but somewhat comic and farce-like public relations stutter, the county called for proposals from companies and citizens alike and then promptly rejected them. The proposals? Some people wanted to make a community garden for at-risk youth, other a prison for international war criminals. A TV production company wanted to make a reality TV show and a private prison firm wanted to use it and use it for you can guess what.
There has been a persistent myth in Portland that Wapato sat empty and was never used for any type of revenue raising, including the exploitation of opportunities presented by the many production companies wanting to film at Wapato. That’s simply not true. Maybe, more filming and more money could’ve been supported, yet, speculation aside and to date, wHole is the 32nd project filmed there int he past 6 years.
That wHole is about mass incarceration makes it, in my book, the most worthy of projects. When the nearly two-month-long California Prisoner Hunger Strike kicked off in the summers of 2011 and 2013, filmmakers Ramon Hamilton and Jennifer Fischer knew they wanted to make a project about solitary. wHole is intended to be “raw and real.”
The locals are excited about the future impact of wHole, which is a far cry from Orange is the New Black. While no mainstream TV show has depicted prisoners so sympathetically, Orange Is The New Black carries its fictional aspects and as such doesn’t reflect reality.
I wanted to know more about how you get into a jail to film and so asked Jennifer Fischer, Think Ten Media co-founder, a few questions.
Scroll down for our Q&A and then further still for more information on the project.
Q & A
Prison Photography (PP): How many vacant jails or prisons are there in the U.S. in which to make feature films or TV series?
Jennifer Fischer (JF): I am not sure. I know Fred C. Nelles Youth Correctional Facility is used often for filming by productions in the Los Angeles Area. I believe Hancock shot there, and there’s lots going on with it right now.
PP: Why did you choose Wapato?
JF: There was really nothing like Wapato Jail that was reasonable in terms of cost. There is a facility in New Jersey I recall Five mentioning to me. I lost all of my research notes about prison locations when my hard drive crashed recently!
We looked into shooting at Nelles and at other locations, but all were prohibitively expensive for our project being made on a limited budget. There were other challenges, such as no running water or electricity, the requirement of a water truck on site.
Some active prisons and jails are often used for filming! But with these locations, if they need the cell you are shooting in, you get booted. At Wapato we’d have access to the entire facility.
PP: How was the process to secure use of the facility?
To secure the facility, we had to speak with Mark Gustafson, who is the property manager. He had a few questions, but the process was really pretty simple. The important thing was getting the correct insurance. Here’s the county’s property management webpage for Wapato jail.
PP: Were the rates reasonable?
JF: Yes, the rates are quite reasonable, basically covering the cost to operate — security guard on site, opening and closing of the facility and any janitorial costs incurred from our use.
In fact, we initially went up to Portland because of the [relatively low] cost of the facility. Before we went we were still considering building a cell somewhere in L.A. when the whole series was greenlit.
However, given how wonderful and support everyone in Portland was and how professional the local cast and crew were, we are now absolutely committed to being back in Portland at Wapato to shoot the entire show.
Scroll down for more info on the web series and links to production photos.
Filming the filmers.
A cell doubles as a make-up room.
Filming inside a cell.
wHole draws on the intimate knowledge of two people who have been incarcerated.
Actor William Brown plays the protagonist in wHole. He has served time in prison. Fischer and Hamilton connected with Brown through Deborah Tobola who runs the Poetic Justice Project, a theater program in California for individuals who have been incarcerated. Tobola and Brown worked together when he was in prison in a program called Arts in Corrections.
Five Mualimmak is a co-producer for the project. Mualimmak also spent time in solitary confinement, 5 years, before he was exonerated. Mualimmak works with the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow and is the Executive Director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign.
“As I wrote the screenplay, I was in touch with Five throughout,” explains Hamilton who is the series writer and director. “I want to make sure that viewers get a real sense of what it is like for a person to live in complete isolation for years.”
Mualimmak wrote about Solitary confinement’s “invisible scars” for the Guardian.
In chatting with Fischer, one of the intriguing resources she pointed me toward was the set photography for wHole. I’ve included some of my preferred shots thorughout this post.
View images from day one, day two, day three and day four. Perhaps most interesting are photos made by crew of the facility’s control room, surveillance systems and control boards.
Five Mualimmak, who spent 5 years of his 12 prison term in solitary confinement, before being exonerated is co-producer on wHole. Above, he plays a prison guard.
Lunch on set
Looks depressingly accurate.
Downloading the day’s footage in the control room.
wHole was made in partnership with American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the American Friends Service Committee, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society, the Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the Media Change Makers (of the University of Texas-El Paso), SendAPackage.Com, Broken On All Sides, Jail Action Coalition New York City, The Bronx Defenders.
Additionally, Academy Award-Winning Producer Jonathan Sanger is an Executive Producer for the project and Dr. Arvind Singhal is the Entertainment Education Specialist for the project.
In Portland, specifically, the assistance of Jan Elfers, Public Policy Director at Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, and Shannon Wright, Deputy Director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice was crucial.
All images courtesy of Think Ten Media and William Meeker.
“I had buddies that couldn’t take the job and wound up quitting because of the mental abuse and, sometimes, physical abuse,” says Steele. “You could be responding to a fight, not knowing that they’re setting you up to stab you with a shank. It’s a very dangerous job. Corrections officers don’t have guns. At that time we weren’t even carrying mace. The only weapon you really have is your mind — how you used it dictated if you were going to have a good 8 hours or a bad 8 hours.”
COP TURNED ADVOCATE
Lorenzo Steele Jr. worked as correctional officer on Rikers Island between 1987 and 1999. Most of his time was spent in the juvenile units. When the officers had retirement parties and other events, he was the one with the camera. In 1996, Steele began talking his small compact film camera into the units and making photographs of the dirt, the filth and the despair. All without any official approval. As part of his work, he also made evidence photos of injuries following violence inside the Rikers Island.
WARNING: THIS ARTICLE INCLUDES GRAPHIC IMAGES OF MUTILATION
When Steele decided to leave the job, his “leap of faith” took him back to community instruction. As founder of Behind These Prison Walls Steele gives public lectures and brings pop-up exhibitions to New York neighbourhoods. It’s a mobile show & tell to shock and educate youngsters on the destructiveness and terror of prison. Steele estimates he has made close to 1,000 presentations in schools, churches and community centres since 2001.
I came across Steele’s archive when some of his images accompanied For Teens at Rikers Island, Solitary Confinement Pushes Mental Limits, a Center for Investigative Reporting article that was also adapted and cross posted to Medium as Inside Rikers Island, part of the excellent ‘Solitary Lives’ series.
It is very unusual for photographs made by correctional staff to surface, let alone for there primary use to be as tools for street-side exhibition and engagement. I called Steele and asked him some questions about his self-propelled cop-to-advocate career change, his motives for making the images, the efficacy of his methods and what we need to start doing differently to decrease the numbers of kids we lock up.
Prison Photography (PP): When did you decide you wanted to be a correctional officer?
Lorenzo Steele (LS): At 21 years old I took a [New York] City test. At that same time I was a para-professional for the New York City Board of Education working with Middle School children. I was there for 8-months and loving the job. I got a letter from the city saying that if I could pass a physical, if I could pass the psychological, if I could pass the drug test, I could become a correction officer.
The only reason I became a correctional officer was because it was paying more money than the Board of Ed. I didn’t know I had to experience the system for 12 years, in order to know the system, and later to help people avoid the system.
I’m 22 years old, and it is just a job — no one in my family went to jail. In the neighborhood I grew up in, nobody went to jail.
The academy was 2 to 3 months at that time. They could never prepare you mentally and physically for what you were about to experience working in a prison. On the first day took the ‘on the job trainees’ OJT’s into an actual facility. Now, they would tell you things — don’t talk to the inmates; don’t stare at the inmates but that was about it. I was afraid, but later I realized that in a prison you can not show fear because you will be manipulated. OJT was about 2 weeks, and after that we were assigned to our facilities.
I worked the C-74 Unit, the Adolescent Recession Detention Center (ARDC) for 14 to 21 year olds. Within that age range, of course, half are adolescents and half are adult inmates. One day you’re working with the adolescents, the next you’re working with adults. I dealt with mental health issues, behavior issues, socio-economical issues. I found out what our people actually go through and why they come to jail.
PP: What were your early impressions of the job?
LS: I’m young, I’m making good money. I have my own apartment, but I have the mind of an officer now.
Can you imagine sitting in a day room with a capacity of 50 inmates and you’re one officer that’s in charge? Your main function is to make sure they don’t kill each other or rape each other and if you see a fight you push a personal body alarm. Depending on which housing area you are in, you can sit there sometimes for 8 hours. I remember the day when I thought, “I can’t do this for twenty years. There are bigger and better things out there for me.”
I’m a photographer. I wondered what I could do legally. I started formulating a mentoring program. I used to volunteer my time in schools as a correction officer and share my insight on what the prison system’s really like. The average person doesn’t really know until its too late. It’s my mission to let these young children know that jail is the last place on earth they want to be.
PP: Do you consider yourself fortunate in that you came to that decision? Because for a lot of people in a lot of jobs, sometimes the stress is so high and the options seem so few they can’t even step back for a minute to see a change in circumstances.
LS: It was very rare for anyone to just resign from the department, unless they were brought up on charges. It was almost unheard of. People asked, “What are you gonna do? This is the best job.”
The last day that I knew I was going to be there, I walked around the jail and I grabbed a little object where I could and wrote on the wall. I carved my name in some wood objects and on some metal doors.
It was around the time of Mother’s Day. My Grandmother was in town and I took her to church. Sometimes, the preacher is actually talking to you. He said, “If there’s anything on your mind just leave it behind you, step out on faith.” That next day, that Monday, I went downtown and turned in my shield, turned in my gun.
PP: What year did you resign?
PP: In between which years did you make photographs in Rikers?
LS: I began maybe around ’95 or ’96.
I was the photographer for COBA, the NYC Correctional Officers Benevolent Association. People retire or you have parties or special events. I always had a camera on me. After that, I used to take pictures of inside of the prison not knowing that I was to turn it into an enterprise to save people from going into the jail.
I had a camera with no flash. Can you imagine taking out a camera? You’ve got 200 prisoners coming down the corridor to the cafeteria — they’re going to see the camera going off so I had to disguise it somehow. You get an adrenaline rush knowing that you can’t get caught. Once that shutter button is released its almost the best feeling in the world. Its like a high once that shutter button goes off and you’ve captured that image. And you know.
PP: Where did you keep the camera? In an office or did you take it home with you every day?
LS: I had it in my pocket. Sometimes I would take pictures of the officers in their uniform because the average officer never really has a picture of himself in uniform. It was a good time back then because the camaraderie was great. We had one team; the officers, the captains, the deputies, the warden. We were all one team back then, but you couldn’t do it today because after twenty years things change in the department.
PP: What type of camera did you use?
LS: A 35mm. One of those CVC store cameras. Digital cameras weren’t even out then. I put some black tape around the flash and disguised it almost like a cell phone or a beeper.
PP: How many photographs do you think you took, in total, inside the prison?
LS: Over 200 photos. Shots of prisoners in cells, of the solitary confinement unit, pictures of prisoners who were physically cut. In colour. You can’t imagine the power of those images when I show the kids: “If you don’t change your ways, this could happen to you.”
LS: Children cannot relate to prison, yet they see the negative violence on television and sometimes a rapper will glorify prison. Some rappers are promoting violence, promoting gang activity, and that’s some children’s reference to the criminal justice system.
But, once you step foot in that criminal justice system your life changes forever. Sometimes they might not even make it out. At 15-years-old we’ve had adolescents that end up taking 25 years with them upstate because they caught jail cases cutting and stabbing individuals while they was on Rikers Island.
PP: How do you exhibit those 200 photographs to the public?
LS: It depends on the audience. I have a lot of graphic images so I don’t put those in the schools with the kindergarten kids and the third graders.
I have select images that I use when I exhibit on the sidewalk in at-risk communities. About 20 images at a time but it depends on where and what message I’m trying to get out.
PP: I’ve seen only a few images like the ones you’ve published. One example is the selection of images leaked by a Riker’ Island officer to the Village Voice two years ago.
We don’t see many images shot from the hip. If we do, they’re usually anonymous. Such images do exist but one must work hard to seek them out. How many people see your presentations? Are people shocked? Surprised? Do people respond to the images in the way that you hope they will?
LS: The first time they see the images, yes, they are shocked, especially students. Students that I deal whether in the church, in schools, in the community, are shocked. Images are powerful but the knock out blow is information, the experience, that actually goes behind what’s in that image.
PP: How dangerous was Rikers? In the 12 years you worked there how many incidents of serious assault and possibly even murder occurred or occurred on your shifts?
LS: Let’s talk about the adolescents first. Rikers Island was considered the most violent prison in the nation. We used to average sometimes 50 to 60 razor slashings a month. Slashing with the single edge razor blade. Cut somebody over the face multiple times inside. There was a lot of blood.
When I went into corrections, I didn’t like the sight of blood [but] I saw so many people get cut that it became normal. I was so desensitized. And that’s scary because that normalcy meant somebody had a scar on their face for life and for every cutting there was a repercussion; if a prisoner got cut he had to get revenge on the other guy and catch another jail case.
PP: I have no idea how politics, street politics or gang culture — in or out of prison — work in New York today let alone in the late 80s and 90s. Over your twelve years, was there consistent gang activity or did it change?
LS: In ’87, there weren’t gangs in the New York prison system. In the early ’90s, we realized we had a gang problem in the prisons. The gangs had their own language. 300 prisoners in the cafeteria and five officers. We had to learn the language real quick and that is what established the Gang Intelligence Unit. By conducting cell searches, we would get the paraphernalia and the by-laws of the gangs
Later on, they flipped gang members into telling the department what the language meant; that’s how the Department of Corrections infiltrated the gangs. We passed the information on to NYPD.
It was very dangerous. You had to be on your toes all the time. The gangs recruited younger people whom they would force sometimes to do harm on officers or do harm to prisoners. We did the best we could.
One of the blessings was that I always had good supervisors. When the captain said ‘go’, you went, and when he said ‘stop’, you stopped. You put your life in the hands of your captain; it’s almost like being in a war. I am old school. That’s what really kept us on top of the prisoners. The jail would never be overrun because you had a select group of officers that demanded respect and that knew how to take care of the business without anybody getting hurt. When prisoners saw that select group of officers, nothing was going down that day.
Part of being a Correction Officer is knowing your prisoners and you always wanted to know the gangster, you always wanted to know the person who was running the housing area because that’s the one that you would use, you know. “Listen man, while I’m here today, nothing’s gonna go down. Tell the boys man to shut it down while I’m here.”
PP: Clearly, I’m opposed to prisons as they exist. I think we lock too many people up and I think when we’re locking people up we’re not providing the right sort of conditions or services for them. Obviously, what goes on in the jails and prisons relates to outside society. The reason you do your work now, I presume, is because you see that link between poverty, what goes on in the neighborhoods and what happens in the jails.
What do we need to do better? How do we rely less on incarceration and when you must imprison people, how do you make it safer for everyone in the place? How do you stop people from coming back? Do we need smaller prisons, do we need more money, do we need different sentences for different crimes?
LS: It starts before prison. I worked in the neighborhoods classified by criminal justice books as “high-crime areas” and it starts with parenting.
Bill Cosby said on National TV that we have parents more focused on giving their kids cell phones, expensive gear and expensive pants. And they condemned Cosby. They found some black guy on CNN to come on and say ‘Cosby, you are wrong.’ But he was right. Unless you are inside the school system you wouldn’t necessarily know.
That’s why I hit the streets. I try to let the parents know that without that proper parenting their child has more chance of going through the criminal justice system.
Imagine being in a first grade class in an impoverished neighborhood (it depends on the school district) with 30 to 35 students in one class. 1st grade. Half the children can read, half the children cannot read, now you have one teacher. How is that teacher going to really teach? There’s two different dynamics going on in that classroom. We have children across America that are coming into the public school system unprepared to learn.
LS: Poverty is a crime, because poverty comes with where you live. Those in impoverished neighborhoods are subjected to crime, shootings, and drugs, and then children have to go into a school system that doesn’t have the necessary resources. It’s a ticking time bomb.
Unless a parent or guardian is there to break down that math homework, for them, some children don’t know what’s going on. Unless there’s a parent there that could check the homework that the teacher gives every night. Its not going to get done. There’s a lot parents in poorer communities who are uneducated themselves. Look at the statistics coming out of poor neighborhoods — many young adults are not finishing high school and are not going to college. If a parent is not educated, then probably education is not talked about in the home.
The point of attack, strategically, needs to be that early childhood.
PP: Parenting and education. I can agree. But we can’t roll back the years’ generations to correct past mistakes. So what about the situation as it stands now? Say, you have a 15-year-old who’s acted out, he’s been pulled in by the police, he’s got a serious charge over his head. Is Rikers Island the best place to deal with that kid? Is Rikers Island the sort of institution in which — while they are kept away from the public for public safety — they themselves are kept safe?
LS: If you break the law there are consequences. There are necessary disciplines in place so we have a civil society. But is it Rikers Island or is it a juvenile detention center?
If you would have asked me this question as an officer, I’d have said, “Rikers, yeah.” But, now, when I go into the communities and hear what the parents have to say about a lot of these children just mimicking their parents, I wonder is that child at fault? Why did he steal that cell phone? Maybe his father was a thief, or maybe they don’t have structure in the home. Maybe there needs to be a place where a child’s whole history needs to be examined? What’s going on in that child’s home. Does he have a support system? He lives in a high crime area, how much do we expect him to succeed?
LS: Yes, I feel there needs to be places where children can go to receive those special considerations, not thrown into a place like Rikers Island in which you’re housed with murderers.
Let’s create places and bring in the necessary mentors. And I’m not just talking about doctors in psychology. Sometimes, it takes the correction officer. Sometimes, it takes that guy that did 25 years in jail.
Create a first offense type place. “Young man, we give you a year. If you do the right thing in this place we’ll seal your record, but if you don’t, you gotta go to the next level.” Sometimes, some people have to go through that prison system if they’re going to turn their lives around.
Create a place where they could come in and get properly mentored to. You understand? Some people have degrees and others not, but there’s only a select few who can really get through to these children.
PP: So, the prison system is too rigid?
LS: It doesn’t always work. Prisons are putting way too many adolescents with mental health problems behind bars. They’re banging on the cells for 3 or 4 hours. These young children need advocates. They can’t speak. Not too many kids are writing a letter to mommy saying, “I’m thinking about suicide tonight; being locked in a 8×6 foot cell for 23 hours, I can’t take it no more.”
PP: Your photographs were used in an article by the Center for Investigative Reporting about solitary confinement. Over your time as a correctional officer did you see the use of solitary for youngsters increase, decrease, or stay the same?
LS: We had one unit, about 66 cells. Prisoners that cut, stabbed, or assaulted officers, were locked in solitary confinement.
Warden Robinson implemented a program called Institute for Inner Development (IID). The warden put together a team. Hand-picked. A select few that you could trust and you knew they weren’t going to violate any prisoners rights. We did two weeks of training and took it to a select housing area. We transformed that housing area. Imagine going from 50 slashings a month, [among the] adolescents, to zero for four years.
Programs work if you can get the necessary personnel to properly run and maintain them. When we ran the IID program, we took another housing area — a hundred more prisoners — then another housing area. Eventually, we had 200 prisoners in the nation’s most violent prison in America and and next to no violence.
PP: What was different about that program? What was it that you provided the youngsters?
LS: I love children. I’m a disciplinarian, I love reading, so I had tons of knowledge about slavery and the connection between slavery and incarceration, so when you start talking about this new thing, they just love it. These 14, 15, 16 year-olds didn’t have any type of discipline at home, didn’t have the male role models at home. “This is what men do young man. Pull your pants up. Grown men do not walk around with their pants down.”
PP: So it was more about developing different interactions between the correctional officers and the prisoners, and changing the culture within the unit?
LS: Out of all of those officers, twelve officers, we had no psychologists, no therapists. We were the psychologists we were the therapists. Just because you have a degree that doesn’t mean that you can work in an area like that. There’s a lot of passion that’s involved in that.
PP: After you resigned, when did you begin exhibiting the photographs?
LS: I detoxed for about 8 months, just not doing anything. From being on the drill to taking it back to normal. Then I started going into the schools and just sharing my information.
PP: With the images?
LS: I laminated some 8×10” color prints and put them on the blackboard. Then I got a laptop and a projector, and went from holding the pictures in my hand to projecting them agains auditoriums and classrooms walls. My first printed use of the images came in a 2005 Don Diva Magazine feature. They gave me 5 or 6 pages. I provided my phone number. Soon after, a police officer who worked with youth called me and asked, “Could you come in a talk to my youth?” That was the start of giving back.
PP: How do you evaluate your work?
LS: Seeing that look on somebody’s face when they think they know what jail was like, but then I show them the reality. Talking to 500 students in an auditorium and asking them, “Is this new information?” and they all say yes. Many of them have to make a change right there. For others its going to take longer to make that change.
PP: Is what you do anything like Scared Straight!?
LS: I’m not trying to scare you straight I’m trying to inform you straight.
When you’re looking at somebody and they got a thousand stitches on their face, the shock is there but along with the shock is the information behind it. Prison is a violent place and the criminal justice system is a for profit agency and so I break down a lot of information within the program.
PP: What images do we need to see?
LS: We need to see the graphic images of the young guy that was in solitary confinement unit who just cut himself with a razor blade because that was the only way that he could get out.
LS: We need to see the images of a young girl in shackles walking down the corridor with a hospital gown on. We need to see images of somebody crying in their cell at night and the only reason he’s in the cell is because his parents didn’t have the money to bail him out. We need to see those images of the abuses, we need to see the dirt, we need to see the filth.
We need to see the pain the officers go through — the officers that get cut and the officers that get feces thrown in their face hoping that they don’t have Hepatitis. An image is what stays in the mind. Every time you think about doing bad you need to think about that image.
Hollywood uses images too to glorify the rich and powerful with the jewelry on their neck. But it is fake. I use images to bring awareness to what really takes place behind bars and what young adolescents are actually going through. Everyday. It has to be traumatic.
Is the prison system still in the business of rehabilitation? That’s a question that needs to be asked in the Department of Corrections nationwide. Are prisons and jails in the business of rehabilitation? Yes, he did commit a crime, but does he have to be put into a cell for 23 hours. Is that rehabilitation? Or is that torture? We have to define cruel and inhumane treatment. We have to bring up those: terms, rehabilitation or torture.
What we do with this young child while we have him here for a couple years could make or break him for the rest of his life. There’s volunteers that go into the prison and mentor. Recently, I had the week off so I went back to Rikers Island, and did some workshops, talking to the kids. I felt obligated because we’re in a place that could make or break them. Some are going to the street. Some are going upstate. If you’re going to the street, prepare their minds while they’re here. If we’re trying to rehabilitate.
PP: Over the 12 years that you’ve been doing this work, if you can estimate, how many times have you presented to groups speaking and how many times have you presented images?
LS: I’ve done close a thousand presentations — in churches, schools, and sometimes putting them on the streets. Just taking the images right to the high crime areas and putting them right on the sidewalk. People in the poor neighborhoods are not going to go to the museum so I bring the museum to the streets.
PP: Thanks, Lorenzo.
LS: Thank you, Pete.
Black Is The Day, Black Is The Night (BITDBITN) is a collection of images, texts, letters, objects, quotes and ephemeral queries borne of Amy’s correspondence with men on death row and in solitary confinement. It is a project I know well having interviewed Amy about it in 2011 and curated it into the exhibition Cruel and Unusual in 2012. I’ve keenly followed the development of BITDBITN. In some cases, Amy and I bounced ideas back-and-forth about it when we lived in the same town. Amy and I are close friends and she once invited me to guest curate at Women In Photography. When Daylight asked me to write an essay to accompany the images and audio it was a no-brainer.
BITDBITN is about execution, time on death row, solitary confinement, sensory deprivation. It is also about the most invisible parts of America’s prison industrial complex. Amy grew up in California, the state that was first to operate a specialised solitary confinement facility at Pelican Bay State Prison. This past summer, as I was writing the piece, the California Prisoner Hunger Strike in protest of conditions in Pelican Bay and other SHU, IMU and solitary facilities was in full swing.
Amy’s work is our entry into this highly contested political territory; a territory that remains, for all intents and purposes, hidden. It is hidden because solitary makes people insane and is psychological torture.
Daylight Digital’s presentation includes the words of Freddy (spoken by Rafael Ramirez) who was sent to prison as a 13 year-old, has spent the last 20+ years of his life in solitary confinement, and with whom Elkins corresponded for four years.
I’m proud to have been invited to join this multimedia collaboration. See the images, listen to the testimony, read the words.